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This 2009 photo shows the Willis Avenue Bridge looking south from the Bronx construction staging site. This bridge replacement project was completed in 2010. (Photo by Kevin Walsh,

BUILT TO RELIEVE THE THIRD AVENUE BRIDGE: At the end of the nineteenth century, massive industrial development in the Bronx prompted officials in the newly unified "Greater New York" to find ways to connect residents in northern Manhattan with the new jobs. While the Third Avenue Bridge stood about one-half mile north along Harlem River, the bridge, which was reconstructed in the 1890s, was already reaching capacity.

In July 1894, the commissioner of public works empowered the City of New York to "build a bridge beginning at First Avenue and 125th Street, thence northeasterly or nearly so, to and across Harlem River, to and along Willis Avenue to 134th Street" in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. The point selected for crossing the Harlem River, a location where ferries had run since 1667, crossed the terminal yard of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. Once completed, the bridge was to be operated free of tolls by the newly created Department of Bridges. The department tapped Thomas C. Clarke to design the new bridge.

In November 1894, the New York City Board of Estimate approved the proposed Willis Avenue Bridge, which at the time was estimated to cost $1.67 million. Two months later, the Army Corps of Engineers approved plans for the swing bridge. However, further progress was delayed because of unsuccessful negotiations with the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad over bulkhead property, easements and air rights. It was not until May 1897 that legislation permitting the City to acquire the right-of-way over the railroad (for a fee of $105,000) was signed.

On October 8, 1897, the first construction contracts went out to Leonard Foley and John C. Rodgers. Less than two months later, work began on the Willis Avenue Bridge.

As the bridge was being constructed, alterations were made to the original plans for incandescent lights, increased boiler and dynamo power (using electric rather than steam power), four pedestrian shelters on rest piers, an improved end-lift system, and the use of cement instead of asphalt on the roadway and sidewalks. These alterations added to the cost of the bridge, and it soon became evident that the $2 million allowed by the 1894 legislation would be insufficient to pay the entire cost. At the request of city officials, the New York State Legislature allocated additional funds for the bridge's completion. The Willis Avenue Bridge opened to traffic on August 22, 1901 at a cost of $2.5 million.

DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION: Designed by Thomas C. Clarke, who also created plans for the Third Avenue Bridge, the Willis Avenue Bridge features a 304-foot-long draw span that swings perpendicular to the approach roadways. When opened, vessels in the Harlem River are permitted to travel through two 108-foot-wide channels. When closed, the bridge permits 24 feet of vertical clearance.

The swing span comprises two continuous trusses supported by a drum girder at the pivot pier and toggle end lifts on the rest piers. A floor system at the level of the bottom chords provides for a 42-foot-wide roadway, which accommodates four northbound traffic lanes, between the two trusses. There are two 9-foot-wide sidewalks along the outsides of each of the two trusses. To the north of the swing span, a fixed curved truss span carries the roadway over the Harlem River freight terminal, now owned jointly by the CSX and Burlington Northern railroads.

Opening and closing of the rim-bearing swing bridge is accomplished by span-drive machinery mounted above the drum girder on platforms that cantilever outward beyond the drum girder at the level of the load distribution framing. When the bridge is operated, the machinery rotates with the draw. Operation of the bridge is controlled from the operator's house, which is located on a platform that spans over the roadway.

The foundations were constructed using caissons and cofferdams. Once the foundations were set, masonry piers were erected. To protect the piers, spruce, oak and pine pilings were used as fenders.

When the bridge opened, Livingston Schuyler described its aesthetic shortcomings as follows:

(The Willis Avenue Bridge) derives an adventitious ugliness from the fact that the curved draw span is flanked on one side, by a bowstring girder, which would be sufficiently awkward with the central feature if it were symmetrized by being repeated on the either side, where it is in fact counterparted by the plate girder of the roadway. One says, with confidence, that the arrangement would be intolerable to a designer of any aesthetic sensibility and that such a designer would find some way of circumventing its awkwardness.

TROLLEYS ON THE BRIDGE: In 1914, the Union Railway Company won approval from the New York City Board of Estimate and the mayor's office to run trolley cars over the Willis Avenue Bridge. The approved route ran from 134th Street and Willis Avenue in Mott Haven, over the bridge to 125th Street in Harlem, and onto the Fort Lee Ferry terminal. After two years of preparing the bridge to carry loaded trolley cars, the new route opened to regular service on April 5, 1916. The cross-bridge trolley service was abandoned on August 5, 1941, the day when the city paired the Willis Avenue and Third Avenue bridges for one-way traffic.

CONNECTING TO THE STREET GRID: At the southern approach in Harlem, First Avenue and East 125th Street connect directly to the bridge. A ramp from the northbound FDR Drive (at EXIT 18), which opened in 1936 during the Triborough Bridge-East River Drive improvement project, also connects to the bridge. At one time, a third ramp had been proposed from East 127th Street and Second Avenue, but this plan was later shelved. At the northern terminus in the Bronx, the Willis Avenue Bridge empties onto Willis Avenue near the Major Deegan Expressway. A direct ramp connecting to Bruckner (Southern) Boulevard opened in 1907. Until 1972, the bridge carried the NY 1A designation.

REBUILDING THE WILLIS AVENUE BRIDGE: In late 1999, the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) proposed two alternatives to address structural and seismic deficiencies, increase the load carrying capacity, improve safety, and enhance bicycle and pedestrian facilities on the bridge. Incorporated into and studied with the "rehabilitation" and "rebuild" alternatives were design variations of bridge type (moveable or fixed) and materials (concrete or steel). In 2001, the three agencies decided to replace the existing span with a new swing bridge, which at the time was estimated to cost $278 million.

Construction of the bridge began in early 2009 in Coeymans, New York, a Hudson River town about 136 miles north of New York City. The new 2,400-ton swing span was built entirely off-site, allowing the old span to remain in service during construction. The 350-foot-long swing span exceeded the length of the old span by 46 feet, and the new bridge was widened to accommodate four 12-foot-wide traffic lanes. A viaduct approach replaced the fixed truss span on the Bronx side of the swing span. Other approach spans and connecting ramps for the new bridge were built on new alignment just south of the existing span. In July 2010, the prefabricated span was barged south to Bayonne, New Jersey, where it underwent final preparatory work before it was hauled to the installation site on the Harlem River.

The new Willis Avenue Bridge was completed and opened to traffic on October 2, 2010. Although the $612 million cost was more than double the original cost estimate, the new span was finished ahead of the projection 2012 completion date. Like the old span, the new Willis Avenue Bridge carries four northbound lanes. After the new bridge opened, the old span was barged down the East River to Bayonne, New Jersey to be recycled.

According to the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), which maintains the Willis Avenue Bridge, the span carries approximately 75,000 vehicles per day (AADT). Because of its close proximity to the Triborough (RFK) Bridge, the Willis Avenue Bridge serves as a toll-free, heavily traveled alternative route to the nearby toll bridge.

Artist's rendition of the new Willis Avenue Bridge, which opened to traffic on October 2, 2010. (Photo by New York City Department of Transportation.)

Type of bridge
Construction started
Opened to traffic
New span opened to traffic
Length of main span
Length of two channels
Total length of bridge and approaches
Width of bridge
Width of roadway
Number of traffic lanes
Clearance at center above mean high water
Steel used in swing span
Steel used in structure
Masonry used in structure
Foundation type
Cost of original structure
Cost of new structure

December 4, 1897
August 22, 1901
October 2, 2010
350 feet
108 feet
3,212 feet
77 feet
48 feet
4 lanes
25 feet
2,400 tons
6,213 tons
29,546 cubic yards

SOURCES: The Bridges of New York by Sharon Reier, Quadrant Press (1977); "A Guide to Civil Engineering Projects in and Around New York City," American Society of Civil Engineers (1997); "Willis Avenue Bridge: Letter of Intent," Federal Highway Administration and New York State Department of Transportation (1999); "Mayor: Replace the Creaky Willis Avenue Bridge," Bronx Press Review (5/04/2000); "Plan To Cut Construction Spending Would Delay Willis Avenue and Brooklyn Bridge Projects" by Michael Cooper, The New York Times (2/21/2002); "Want To Buy a Bridge?" by Michelle Charlesworth, WABC-TV (1/13/2006); "New York City Has A Bridge To Sell, Really" by Sewell Chan, The New York Times (1/14/2006); "Replacement of the Willis Avenue Bridge Over the Harlem River," New York City Department of Transportation (2007); "Heads Turn As a Bridge Floats By" by Corey Kilgannon, The New York Times (7/13/2010); "New Willis Avenue Bridge Arrives in Harlem" by Stephen Nessen, WNYC Radio (7/26/2010); "New Willis Avenue Bridge Opens" by Tom Namako, New York Post (10/02/2010); New York City Department of Transportation; Bill Armstrong; Kevin Walsh.

  • NY 1A shield by Ralph Herman.
  • Lightpost by Jeff Saltzman.





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